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CEP Occasional Paper
Finding Our Way: Vocational Education in England
Hilary Steedman and M West
May 2003
Paper No' CEPOP18:
Full Paper (pdf)

Charles Clarke has recently described England as having 'a weak offer for those who want a vocational orientation to their studies.' This discussion paper analyzes the weaknesses of vocational education in this country and suggests how to remedy them. <br><br> Vocational education should be about progression, both to skilled employment and to further levels of education. If those aims can be achieved it has an important part to play. There are strengths in our system, with around 30 per cent of 16 year olds opting for full-time vocational programmes in school or college, quite apart from the numbers entering apprenticeships. And there is a large vocational presence in highe r education, including the professions. <br><br> But vocational education has suffered a chequered history, being subject to many different initiatives over the years, each of which has had rather different purposes in mind. This overlay of initiatives, courses, qualifications and indeed philosophies has resulted in: <ul> <li>a confusing plethora of qualifications, with no image in the minds of young people, parents and employers about what vocational education involves; <li>high degrees of non-completion with switching between the many different courses and a dropping off of participation at 17; <li>poor linkages both between the various types of vocational courses on offer, and between them and vocational offerings in higher education. A third of vocational students are on courses which could not lead to higher education, either directly or through further related course, even if someone excelled on it; <li>poor linkages to the labour market, not helped by the fact that the industry bodies who are meant to set standards have been reorganized five times in the last thirty years, and twice in the last five years alone. </ul> Other countries offer us models of how to constitute programmes of full- time vocational education. These are common on the Continent, even in countries which have a strong apprenticeship tradition. There is no single recipe, but the lessons for us are: <ul> <li>trying, as we seem to be, to offer vocational courses both as pathways in their own right and as options which can be mixed with academic subjects is unlikely to succeed; <li>linkages with both higher education and apprenticeship is both possible and desirable; <li>vocational education can be a respectable option, and certainly is not seen abroad - as it sometimes is here - as an alternative to academic subjects for those who are struggling at school; <li>the quest for 'parity of esteem' between academic and vocational subjects is a wild goose chase. Far from raising the reputation of vocational courses it is likely to distort them and make them pale imitations of academic studies, with little purpose of their own. </ul>

The right way forward is to develop substantial national vocational programmes, perhaps 15 to 30 in all, each culminating in an award at level 3, the first point at which vocational education has a demonstrable pay-off in the labour market. These programmes would: <ul> <li>be designed through genuine working partnerships between industry, awarding bodies, higher education and vocational teachers; <li>include a rich mixture of relevant physical and social science subjects to enable general education to be continued in a natural manner; <li>give access to the large array of vocational subjects already present within higher education; <li>through specialist options within them enable students to gain credits towards Advanced Modern Apprenticeships, or for Foundation Apprenticeships for young people who did not want, or who could not manage, a full level 3 programme; <li>include an introductory stage for young people with weaker GCSEs who needed to build up their skills and mesh in with preparatory programmes for those under 16 who wanted to sample a number of vocational options before committing themselves. </ul> These vocational programmes would build on the structures and courses that already exist, but - by gathering them together - make them much more coherent. They would reflect the best of successful practice abroad, where vocational studies are more esteemed than here and produce better results. And they would be consistent with emerging proposals for an 'English baccalaureate', providing the specialized vocational variants that are envisaged under this system.